“The only constant is change,” they said.
“The Wheel keeps turning,” she said.
“The more things change,” he said, “the more they stay the same.”
There was a time when, if you’d asked for advice about writing dialogue, most folk would tell you to strictly, only, use “Said” and “Asked” as dialogue tags. The prevailing thought behind this was two-fold. First, it was thought that “Said” and “Asked” were “Invisible” words. I’ve always taken this to mean that by “Invisible” it was meant that as you were reading, your brain would just whizz past “Said” or “Asked” without it really registering. After all, it’s the name that’s really important in that two-word combo. You need to know who is speaking, after all.
The second reason, relates to other words you could use instead. Words you could add to sort of telegraph the tone or emotion behind the dialogue.
He cried, she whispered, they hissed – that sort of thing.
The thought behind this makes sense: If the writing is strong enough, the context around the dialogue, the emotions that the characters are experiencing, will do all the heavy lifting for you. Add to that visual cues like the Exclamation mark (!) and you really shouldn’t need, so the prevailing wisdom went, anything other than “Said.”
Now this wasn’t always the case. Dialogue tags ranged far and wide from “Said” and “Asked.” You don’t need to go much farther back than Poe, or Wells, or Verne (to name a few) to find much more. But as the world (Writing and otherwise) changed, dialogue tags had been reined in (in theory, if not in practice) quite a bit.
I say “In theory” because if you read closely you’ll find just about every author has broken this “Rule” at one time or another.
Over time, I had really internalized this. Every time I had the idea to use a dialogue tag other than “Said” or “Asked” I either ruthlessly quashed the thought, or I put this instance under rigorous scrutiny to determine if this straying from the proper path was warranted – and I do confess to small feelings of triumph when such an instance made it to print.
Recently, I am starting to see some push back against the bonds restricting our dialogue tags. Part of this is, I think, the result of a long-running trend to avoid using the same words in multiple paragraphs, so if you’ve got a dialogue heavy passage, you’ll see “Said” or “Asked” several times on the page, and it’s a testament to the invisibility of those two words that this hasn’t started happening earlier. But it is happening.
We’re being allowed to roam a bit. Words like Called and Whispered, and Sighed (Yes, you most certainly can Sigh a word. I do it almost daily. Don’t let anyone tell you differently) are starting to see the light of day.
That doesn’t mean that the leash is off completely. Something like “He ejaculated” may be technically correct for someone speaking, but unless you’re writing erotica, you’re going to want to leave that on the editing room floor.
Come to think about it, I’d reword that even if you’re writing erotica, perhaps especially if you’re writing erotica.
So stretch your word-legs a bit, work out some of the stiffness in your dialogue tags and try something new.
Thanks for reading. Be safe out there. Be Excellent to Each other – and yourself.
I’ll see you on Thursday.
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